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Busoni's Indian Diary, written for the Bösendorfer Imperial, featured on Italian National Radio

Carlo Grante plays excerpts on a Bösendorfer Imperial from Ferruccio Busoni's Indian Diary on the program Contemporanea, hosted by Guido Barbieri, on Italian National Radio on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010 at 11:00 PM. Here are his text and performance excerpts.

During a visit to the United States, Busoni had occasion to meet with one of his former students, Natalie Curtis, who had studied harmony with him in 1893. Curtis had since become a pioneer of American ethnomusicology, collecting songs from Native American tribes throughout North America. Reuniting with Busoni during his stateside visit, Curtis presented her former mentor with a volume containing her numerous transcriptions published in 1907. The gift inspired Busoni to compose a handful of substantial works, including the Red Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra, Op. 44, which he dedicated to Curtis, and the Indian Diaries. The latter was divided into two books: the first, a set of four studies for piano, and the second, a study for strings, winds, and tympani.

Containing four individual pieces, Book I of the diaries bears a close relationship to the Red Indian Fantasy. The solo studies take as their starting point a number of melodies from Curtis' collection, including several that figured prominently in the Fantasy. In fact, the four pieces of Book I of the diary are ordered in such a way that their melodies are presented in the same order that they appear in the earlier work. ~ Jeremy Grimshaw, All Music Guide

Indian Diary (1915): 1. Allegro affettuoso, un poco agitato

The first piece of the Indian Diary is built on the He-Hea Katzina Song of the Hopi tribe; its binary form eschews a proper middle section, having instead a suspended play of modal scale formations. Such scales and the resulting modes, which will be of major importance later in the piece, are generated by the succession of four-note fragments, each built on pairs of semitone intervals. This very interval is the main and most fundamental building device of the first two pieces in the set: it is not only the characteristic thematic interval, but also the most effective device for harmonic progressions and the formation of modal scales and sets of pitch aggregates. The first piece is therefore in a AA' + Coda form, the second section restating the theme in F minor, one semitone below the key in which that same theme appears at the onset, in F-sharp minor.

This is the text of the song, revealing a decidedly “totemic” or “animistic” culture:

Corn-blossom maidens
Here in the fields,
Patches of beans in flower,
Fields all abloom,
Water shining after rain,
Blue clouds looming above.

The original melody is divided into two fragments, each repeated and varied. The semitone oscillation A-G# present in the theme (with G# as a lower neighbor note), that hovers above a supposed F# minor harmony, is emphasized in a two-bar introduction in the left hand, in which the semitone cell is inverted (with an upper neighbor note) giving a mood of sadness and lament to the page. The ascending chromatic major thirds (often broken intervals in triplets) of the accompaniment figures fill the gaps between phrases as well as the sound landscape of long sustained notes in the right-hand melody. The second part of the melody is accompanied by figurations of broken common chords, albeit with uncommon progressions: one loses the sense of direction and harmonic syntax, and harmonies follow each other suggesting again that sonic oscillation that appears at the beginning of the piece, especially when an F# major triad alternates with one of G major. The theme of the Indian song reappears in a “recapitulation” (after a short “cadenza” made of flowing scale passages) one semitone down, accompanied by a suggested F minor setting (a semitone below the beginning), and soon after repeated with a E in the bass, again a semitone down. This leads to a variation of the second part of the theme, counterpointed in the left hand by a melody that is an ascending and descending chromatic scale, in a tranquillo emotional setting. This is followd by a surprise: a sostenuto section in which a new melody appears, generated (melodically) by the modal scale formations of the short middle section and (rhythmically) by the accompanying counterpoint of that second part of the theme, giving this piece a tremendous inner coherence yet at the same time appearing fresh, almost improvisational. This improvisational style, an inspiration that to an American Indian would come as in a dream, in these Busoni’s “oniric protocols” (as once Adorno dubbed Schoenberg’s Op. 19 piano pieces) is treated with a metaphysical outlook into this Native American culture, but without leaving anything to chance compositionally.

2. Vivace

Here Busoni arranges and harmonizes a Cheyenne “Song of Victory,” which (as with the song used in the first piece) is split in two parts, each reiterated and differently harmonized. The first part of this song has an accompanimental figure of alternating broken thirds (reminiscent of the noise of horse hooves) which underlines the harmonic functions of I and VI, although the pitches delineate an unusual 6-note scale-aggregate (F-G-Ab-C-Eb-E) which contains a semitone feature encountered in the scale formations of the middle section. In its reiteration, this melodic fragment is treated in the same manner, with the addition of a repeated, obsessive, clashing note B in the right hand that expands the aggregate into a 7-note scale formation, made by the semitone cells: F-G-Ab-B-C-Eb-E (its prime form, in set theory, is 0 1 3 4 5 8).

The second part of the song, with a major harmonic flavor, given by the presence of an A natural, gives to the setting a typical all-Busonian major-minor feature, with a more steady accompaniment (although with the same reappearance of the repeated note B in its repetition, preceded by the insertion of a lead-in bar, which upsets its tonal stability by means of the succession of four broken minor thirds. The coalescence of major and minor mode is a quintessential Busonian trait and is also at the core of Busoni’s idiomatic harmonic language. In his “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music,” Busoni criticizes a fixed idea of conventional major and minor key system:

“Strange, that one should feel major and minor as opposites. They both present the same face, now more joyous, now more serious; and a mere touch of the brush suffices to turn the one into the other. The passage from either to the other is easy and imperceptible; when it occurs frequently and swiftly, the two begin to shimmer and coalesce indistinguishably.”

In the middle section the left hand delineates a descending scale ostinato (combining the 6th, 7th and 1st degrees of D and A harmonic minor) that forms an aggregate of F-G#-A-Bb-C#-D (its prime form, in set theory, is 0 1 2 5 6 9). A comparison between the interval content of this pitch-set (Interval Class Vector: 3, 2, 3, 4, 3, 0) and the one found earlier in the first section (Interval Class Vector: 3, 1, 3, 4, 3, 1) reveals a strong affinity between the two: each has 3 minor seconds, minor thirds and perfect fourths, one has an augmented fourth and two major seconds, the other two major seconds and no augmented fourths.

The descending scale formation ostinato in this middle section is complemented, however, by right-hand figurations that trace other types of pitch-sets, in the form of a pentatonic scale and two 4-pitch groups: 1) A-B-D-E-F#; 2) C-D-E-G; 3) G-A-B-D. Each of these sets, combined with the left-hand ostinato, forms a different expanded set, respectively, of 9, 8, and 8 pitches. In the last bars of this section the right hand begins a chromatic progression of the minor triad Bb- C#-F (formed by pitches of the left-hand scale), transposed into B-D-F# and C-Eb-G- triads, almost reaching a dodecaphonic setting, albeit one with a distinctive Bergian flavor (the use of common chords) and a modal ambiguity that intrigues the listener, with that sense of eschatological momentum found in some other pieces of Busoni, such as the ending of his Fantasia Contrappuntistica or the Pezzo Serioso of the big Concerto for piano, orchestra and choir, Op. 39. Such a modernistic approach to music intrigues the modern analyst and composer, yet keeps its aloof independence; with all its seeming determinism, the music is convincing in its clarity. Busoni’s Italianate approach to art was at the core of his New Classicism, and the independence of its elements is a quintessential Classical feature, as the 19th century art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, in his “Principles of Art History” described it: "Of all nations, Italy has given the classic type its clearest impress; that is the glory of her architecture as of her design. Even in the baroque she never went so far in depriving the parts of their independence as Germany. We could characterise the difference of imagination by a musical metaphor. Italian church bells always hold to definite tone-figures: when German bells ring it is merely a weft of harmonious sound." Busoni admired the “Latin attitude to art with its cool serenity and its insistence on outer form."

© Carlo Grante 2010